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Lately it’s begun to feel as though I’m only told I’m wrong when I say something is wrong. It’s as if the only action frowned upon is the act of frowning upon, and the only taboo is calling something taboo. In this day and age, it seems as though (at least in the media and popular culture—think Twitter) we’re not allowed to denounce anyone’s choices, actions, or beliefs without incurring criticism for criticizing. We’re only permitted to go so far as to say that we feel or think differently. Regardless of our own principles, we’re asked to accept all other beliefs and life approaches indiscriminately.
Some for better and some for worse, more and more of what used to be labeled illicit, insane, or ill advised is entering the realm of what’s considered mainstream, normal, and healthy. Where, then, are we to put our conflicting standards of morality? Who gets to decide when the line gets pushed (or erased) between right and wrong, good and evil, depraved and commonplace?
I don’t have the answers. I’m imperfect. And though I’m sure I often act otherwise, there are few things I know for certain. I have watched the world change. I have seen facades break. I’ve amended some of my beliefs. I’ve had to accept some ugly or uncomfortable things. However, I believe certain lines exist that should never be crossed. Some things will always be right; and some things are wrong.
There are a lot of issues that I could use to illustrate how as a Christian, woman, black person, American, human being, and all the other things I am, I’m often grieved to see certain beliefs and practices embraced—not just accepted, but praised. There are things that (deep to my core) I believe are wrong—pernicious and destructive—that society seems to have no problem accepting.
Rather than remaining fixed, it appears morality is at the mercy of the most vocal majority. And while some changes are the result of good research, insights, or innovations, more seem to simply be an unwillingness to offend or hurt feelings—like preventing the tantrum by giving the misbehaving kid a cookie.
Culture has an especially hard time criticizing things when “everybody is doing it.” But even that isn’t true. “Everybody’s doing it” is the oldest mantra of peer pressure on the books, and it’s deceptive. It simply isn’t accurate.
First of all, “everybody doing it” doesn’t make “it” any less wrong. Does everyone lie on his or her tax forms or surreptitiously download songs or movies for free? No. But even if everyone did, it wouldn’t change the act’s illegality. Just because a feeling, habit, or action is popular, doesn’t mean it does no harm. Have you noticed how many people roll through stop signs? It’s an epidemic, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous or wrong.
And let’s not forget the simplest argument. “Everybody” does not equal “a lot.” Certainly some vices are more common. Some are even done by an overwhelming majority. Lots of people text and drive. We’ve all been mean. Everyone has at least one foot in the pool of dishonesty. But there will always be nonconformists who stand their ground—who don’t take the popular or easy view of right versus wrong. There will always be those who don’t equate a behavior’s popularity with its being above reproach. You may call us prudes, old-fashioned, or out of touch.
There are a lot of hot topics I could choose as my example, but the issue I’m most often confronted with in songs, movies, and television is the destructive distortion of love. Everywhere I look, I see romantic relationships reduced to the physical at the expense of the emotional, spiritual, relational, or intellectual. It’s rampant.
I had to stop watching shows by a certain popular television producer, because they all seemed chronically unable (or unwilling) to depict a happy and healthy marriage. Affairs were commonplace. Challenges were treated as impassable. Commitment was repeatedly subjugated by “the heat of the moment” or “what the heart wants.” Love seemed to be a license for adultery, and love looked a lot like lust.
As a woman who is married and believes in lifelong commitment, I find the media’s counterfeit offensive. It’s hollow. It’s dishonest, and it’s dangerous. Relationships are reduced to transactions, human beings to bodies, personalities to parts, and what is supposed to be a loving union to a performance. Consider the commonly referenced idea of a character being great in bed or the sex in a relationship being good—as if it’s a talent or a competition versus a learning experience or physical dialogue.
The way many movies and shows choose to depict sex in relationships underscores a complete misappropriation of its purpose and its power. The idea of being good in bed suggests that it’s just a skill as opposed to a form of communication—a hobby instead of a learned language of love. It promotes getting intimate without engaging in intimacy—the implication being that sex is an exercise instead of an expression of fidelity.
I’m not here to tell anyone how to live. I’m the only person under my authority—the only person I expect to live out my beliefs. I agree that autonomous beings get to make their own decisions. And so long as their choices don’t harm me or other human beings, I’m not going to get up on a soapbox and make a condemning speech. What I will do is try to not be peer pressured into abandoning my values. I must reevaluate my moral viewpoints in the face of new information, but I won’t allow popularity or today’s trends to be the only argument that leads me to abandon them. I can’t be so afraid of offending others or losing friends that I betray my beliefs. Some things are wrong; pretending otherwise is ill conceived.
“If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” ~ Galatians 1:10c
Criticism comes easily to me. I have judgmental tendencies. It’s one of my vices—one of my uglier qualities. Usually, when I judge (and then criticize) it’s because I’m writing someone else’s story rather than learning his/her reality. Perhaps it’s human nature. Perhaps it’s just my nature. I use appearances to fill in the blanks. But appearances are just that—they are how things seem. Quite often how things appear is very different from the truth that lies beneath.
In confronting my criticism, I usually find that it’s come out of either ignorance or insecurity. It’s when I’m least happy with myself that I’m most regularly guilty of judging and criticizing. I project my own insecurities and ideas onto other people. For example, when I’m feeling unhappy with my own body, I start to pay more attention to the bodies of others. I see someone who is thin and I make assumptions. I see someone who is heavy—perhaps eating a large dessert—and I judge. But the truth is I don’t know the truth. I don’t have the full story. Not all overweight people are gluttonous or lazy. Not all skinny people are disciplined or healthy. It is unfair of me to use someone’s exterior to define and/or criticize that person’s interior. It’s not my job to judge or make assumptions. It is my job to become comfortable with myself and my choices. That leaves me freer to accept how others choose to live. It prompts me to ask instead of assuming, and to wonder instead of judging.
I have to regularly remind myself that not everyone sees or experiences the world the way I do—and that what is right for me isn’t necessarily right for everyone. This was illustrated for me in a powerful way just the other day. Two people were asked to stand back to back and describe what they could see. Each participant, although standing as close as humanely possible to the other person, had a completely different view. Too often I forget how well this illustrates much of life. You and I can grow up in the same family, neighborhood, country, or era and experience all of it differently because we are two different people with two different perspectives, personalities, and predispositions. What you find thrilling, I might find frightening. What you experience as a freedom, I might experience as confining. Where you see risk, I might see opportunity. Looking at the same words, one of us might see an insult while the other sees something complimentary.
I get in trouble with criticism and judgment when I forget that everyone is doing the best he/she can with the resources (physical, emotional, financial, et cetera) he/she has. If I don’t understand another person’s actions, it’s probably because I haven’t tried to understand that person’s perspective.
I do believe that some things are right and some things are wrong. But I believe more things are right for some and wrong for others. There is a big difference between right or wrong for me and right or wrong as absolutes. It’s important that I assign those designations with extreme caution—and remain flexible when I do.
As a Christian, I am called to love—not to judge. It’s not my job to police humanity—to expect others to act, feel, or live the way I do (or would in their position). If you asked one thousand people to draw a flower, you’d get all sorts of varieties and colors. That’s what criticism often forgets, that diversity is natural and different doesn’t mean wrong.
“The only thing that counts is
faith expressing itself through love.”
~ Galatians 5:6b
Note to the reader:
This is a slightly different version of a piece I originally wrote for The Body Is Not an Apology.